From Pharmaceutical Innovation to Public Engagement: Stephen Carter and the Micrarium in Buxton

by Viviane Quirke

In 1981, a new kind of museum opened in Buxton’s old Pump Room. It was the ‘Micrarium’, created by Dr Stephen Carter, who had previously been involved in cancer research at ICI’s Pharmaceutical Research Centre in Cheshire. The Micrarium’s ambition was to make the microscopical world, which Carter had explored in his work for ICI, more readily accessible to the wider public. For this Carter developed a remote-controlled projection microscope and, with the help of his wife Janet and their three daughters, made 50 versions of it in their home workshop in time for the opening. After winning an award from the British Tourist Authority and receiving a Museum of the Year Award, the Micrarium became the first recipient of a grant from the Fund for the Development of Interactive Science Centres. It also received acclaim from professional microscopists, who praised both the clarity of the image and the depth of field obtained with the Micrarium’s microscopes.  However, Carter’s premature death in 1987, after which his widow Janet ran the Micrarium until she retired in 1995, and the eventual displacement of the apparatus used in the Micrarium by digital technology, led to the ultimate demise, not only of the Micrarium itself, but of its very idea as a museum.

Little is known about this short-lived ‘World First’ use of microscopes in a dedicated museum setting, which through the Carters bridged a gap between scientific innovation and public engagement.  Thanks to a generous grant from SIS, I was able to visit Janet Carter in Cheshire in order to interview her and other members of the family, examine the private collection of papers and other materials held by them, and go to Buxton to see the old Pump Room as well as visit the local library.

What this research revealed, was how Carter adapted the microscope and associated technologies to fit its change of purpose and location. Carter and his family also had to develop and mobilise both personal and professional networks, as well as acquire new skills, in a way that challenged the boundary between amateur and professional science. However, despite an apparently favourable social and cultural context, the Micrarium experienced difficulties as well as successes, at a time when public engagement was becoming big business, with multiple constituencies and expanding support, but also with growing competition for resources.